Traditional methods for creating hybrids (done through cross-pollination or cross-breeding) can only occur within closely-related species or life forms (i.e. you can't cross-breed a dog with a cat, for example). Thus, the case can be made that the age-old practice of hybridization simply introduces a co-mingling of genes that could take place naturally if the conditions were right (i.e. if a bee went from one type of pea plant to another variety of pea plant and cross-fertilized the plants through natural means).
Current genetic engineering, on the other hand, allows scientists to cross the "species barrier," as it is called, and mix the genetic material among plants, animals, and micro-organisms in a way that could never occur in nature. While the offspring of a genetically modified life form might be found in the lab of the fictitious mad scientist, Dr. Moreau, such a creature would never be found in nature without the hand of science inserting itself into the process in a most un-natural way. For example, to name a few of the unnerving oddities created in today's laboratories: human genetic material has been placed in a strain of tobacco plants; and the genes of fish have been placed in tomatoes to create certain "desirable" affects.
Now, as odd (or at times, down right creepy) as some of the genetically engineered combinations may sound, the deeper concern now surfacing is a ripple effect most scientists never fully anticipated or prepared for (or, if such an issue was anticipated, it was apparently written off something not worth worrying about). What is this deeper issue?
Before answering that question, I'll take a slight (and very relevant) detour. Biologists have long known that un-related species cooperate with each other. Think of the shark and its constant companion the remora sucker fish that is nourished as it cleans the shark's skin helping the large predator to stay healthy. Or remember our digestive track, which is able to function and process the food we eat thanks to colonies of healthy bacteria that break the food down.
What scientists are only recently beginning to understand, however, is that an entire biosphere is affected when the genetic structure of another species within that biosphere is altered. In other words, when the genes (or what some call the environmental information modules) of one species in a given biosphere are altered, the other species in that biosphere perceive the change and begin to engage in the process of genetic adaptation to account for any such modifications (this level of inter-species connectivity and information exchange has not previously been understood by Western science).
While such genetic modifications typically occur very slowly over eons of time and thus the biosphere's reactions are also slow, the radical shifts in genetics that are being inserted into our various biospheres nowadays, do not allow for such a gradual shift. Instead, many of the chain reactions being instigated by modern-day genetic engineering present some potentially daunting challenges.
For example, as Dr. Bruce Lipton explains in The Biology of Belief, "tinkering with the genes of a tomato may not stop at the tomato, but could alter the entire biosphere in ways we cannot forsee." Lipton goes on to site a study that shows that when humans digest genetically modified foods, the artificially created genes transfer into and alter the character of the beneficial bacteria in the intestine. Similarly, the genetic information transfer among genetically engineered crops and the native species in the same geographic locale has given rise to highly resistant species known as "superweeds."
Because of these seemingly unforeseen effects of genetic engineering, many scientists and nations are calling for stricter regulations (or in some cases outright prohibition) until we better understand the true impact of such efforts. While you and I, as ordinary citizens, have some influence in terms of how we vote, our real control begins with what we put into our shopping carts and then into our bodies. Having grown up on organic foods produced from heirloom seeds, it's challenging for me to see the potential havoc that our experiments with nature could create. More and more, my wife and I are re-examining what we eat, where it comes from, and how it was produced.
We may never fully escape the rolling effects of today's efforts to live better through modern chemistry and genetic modification, but as he New Year begins, I'm resolving to take a more active role in gaining a deeper understanding about food, nutrition, and health and, as a result, making better decisions about what affects my family's well being and that of future generations. Perhaps you'll join me.
Peace, Love, and Good Health to you,
Chief Community Officer
Our Health Co-op, Inc.